New Film Reviews

Bluffmaster, Wolf Creek, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Fun With Dick and Jane, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Ringer, Rumor Has It, The White Countess

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BLUFFMASTER
This glossy Bollywood crime thriller, directed by Rohan Sippy (Kuch Naa Kaho), is an enjoyable romantic comedy (with hip-hop–flavored song-and-dance numbers) about a dashing con artist pulling off the biggest sting of his career—and getting stung right back. Recent attempts at this sort of thing in the West, such as Confidence and the Argentine Nine Queens, were weighed down by their angst-ridden neo-noir poses. Maybe only a Bollywood ace like Sippy would be comfortable enough with frivolity these days to work an elaborate con on the audience and make them enjoy it. The carefully crafted screenplay leads us by the nose through a series of surprises that peel away the layers of disguise in which master trickster Roy (Abishek Bachchan) has shrouded himself, and the reversals never let up. As the beautiful girl who realizes early on that her fiancé is no stockbroker, and whose departure precipitates a moral crisis, Priyanka Chopra is an actress ravishing enough to make all this seem plausible. The reprobates who furnish comic relief, Riteish Deshmukh and Boman Irani, really are the funniest second bananas available, and Nana Patekar's tightly wound thug, Chandru, is a surprisingly realistic (and scary) villain, as tightly wound sociopaths go. Yet despite the excellence of its large ensemble, Bluffmaster still feels like a star vehicle, and a solidly convincing one at that—a measure of the extent to which the younger Bachchan has come out from under the shadow of his legendary father, Amitabh. In this performance, he actually seems to be channeling John Travolta rather than his old man, right down to the trademark strut. (David Chute) (Naz 8, Artesia)

CACHÉ
See Film feature. (Edwards University, Irvine)

WOLF CREEK

 

Writer-director Greg McLean's queasily unsettling debut works from the well-worn Texas Chainsaw Massacre template: a long intro in which suspense is slowly cranked up through the use of jittery digital camerawork and an alienating soundscape, followed by an agonizingly unpleasant final half-hour of torture, sexual menace and female resourcefulness, plus a very bleak coda. British tourists Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and their Aussie traveling companion, Ben (Nathan Phillips), head into western Australia's barren hinterland, only to find, come nighttime, that their car won't start. Along comes a white bushman called Mick (John Jarrett)—a Crocodile Dundee figure explicitly depicted as an obsolete national stereotype—who tows them to his compound, an isolated mining outpost, for a seemingly amiable night of drinking before repairing their vehicle. The nightmare itself commences at dawn when, waking up inexplicably drugged and bound, Liz must somehow find her companions and flee, even as she deduces from a shedful of cars, camcorders and camping equipment that Mick has been playing this game—kidnap, torture, release, recapture and kill—for a very long time. Full of clever reversals, brief triumphs and bitter setbacks, Wolf Creek is consummately well-crafted, unapologetically vicious and leavened with moments of humor that merely intensify the horror. Be warned: The second time a character rehashes Paul Hogan's "That's not a knife, this is a knife" quip, you'll want to avert your eyes. (John Patterson) (Countywide)

Also opening:

BREAKFAST ON PLUTO
Neil "The Crying Game" Jordan's latest foray into transvestism was reviewed in our Holiday Film Guide. (Edwards University, Irvine)

CASANOVA
See Film feature. (Opens Dec. 25 at Edwards Newport, Newport Beach)

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN 2
Near the beginning of Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Steve Martin's character is urged by his wife (played by Bonnie Hunt) to change outfits—to which he responds: "Every dad is entitled to one hideous shirt." Perhaps, but is every successful family comedy entitled to one hideous sequel? In contrast to many overproduced sequels (like, say, Father of the Bride Part II), CBTD 2 never becomes outright embarrassing or offensive; the story of the supersize Baker clan's trip to Lake Winnetka and their rivalry with the Murtaugh family is simply a choppy collection of stagy slapstick set pieces and ersatz Kodak moments. Every scene ends with someone either falling into the lake or learning a "valuable life lesson." What keeps the film afloat (barely) is the sheer charisma of Eugene Levy (as the Murtaugh paterfamilias) and the young Alyson Stoner (as Sarah Baker, a tomboy in the midst of her first crush), who manage to find emotion and laughs in the tritest of dialogue and the flimsiest of scenarios. The movie may play better on video screens in the back of minivans, but I suspect even seat-belted children will remain unimpressed. (James C. Taylor) (Countywide)

FUN WITH DICK AND JANE
The title holds true for about 20 minutes or so in the middle of director Dean Parisot's loose remake of the 1977 Jane Fonda-George Segal vehicle, when the eponymous protagonists turn to armed robbery as a means of maintaining their upper-middle-class existence. He (Jim Carrey) is the fall guy for an imploding, Enron-like corporation, she (Téa Leoni) is a former travel agent turned stay-at-home mom, and as they don rubber Bill and Hillary masks and start knocking over sushi bars and high-end coffee shops, the movie hums with the promise of becoming a sharp-edged satire of success and prosperity (or lack thereof) in the Bush II era—a reverse Robin Hood story in which the rich steal from each other and give nothing to the poor. But Fun lacks the courage of its convictions. Though it never degenerates into one of those self-serving fantasies (like The Family Man) about the virtues of learning how "the other half" lives, it still wants us to find Dick and Jane heroic (as opposed to comically pathetic) as they wreak all manner of havoc so that their BMWs and big-screen TVs won't get repossessed. This is satire made from the inside of the ivory tower, and when, late in the third act, Fun With Dick and Jane decides to come on strong with platitudes about how the petit bourgeois really can stick it to the haute bourgeois, it goes from bad to worse. Carrey (who also produced) has spared himself no slapstick indulgence—he sings, dances, turns cartwheels and even shocks himself with an electrified dog collar—while the gifted Leoni is made only a tad less shrewish here than she was in the equally lamentable Spanglish. (Scott Foundas) (Countywide)

MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS
. . . very little, unless you count Bob Hoskins stripping to the buff, mercifully in fuzzy lighting. Stephen Frears has had more downs than ups of late, but I would never have thought the man responsible for My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters capable of stooping to pap as pappy as this unbearably chipper take on the real-life story of Laura Henderson, who in 1937, at age 69, bought London's venerable but defunct Windmill Theater and turned it into a raunchy vaudeville venue. Poor Judi Dench is saddled with playing Henderson as a dotty old lady liberated by widowhood into a game old dame with two new leases on life: retooling the theater into a de facto strip joint ("Oh! How delicious! Naked girls!") and growing a schoolgirl crush on her theater manager, Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins), despite the fact that he's a d class Jew. Christopher Guest guests unmemorably as Mrs. H.'s pal, the Lord Chamberlain, who gives his blessing so long as the lovelies (headed by the truly lovely Kelly Reilly, last seen as a bitchy minx in Pride & Prejudice) don't move a muscle. All is joyful vulgarity until World War II churlishly bursts in, generating oodles of Dunkirk spirit and swelling Martin Sherman's awful script into such orgies of cliché, you want to bottle it. (Ella Taylor) (Opens Dec. 25 at Edwards University, Irvine)

THE PRODUCERS
See Film feature. (Opens Dec. 25 countywide)

THE RINGER
At their best, Peter and Bobby Farrelly make garishly inappropriate comedies with a soft center—the flying jism and terrible comb-overs feel less grotesque because of the love the brothers exhibit toward their oddball characters. The trickiness of that sweet-and-sour balancing act becomes apparent when others try to follow in the Farrellys' gross-out footsteps. Such is the case with this would-be outrageous laugher from director Barry W. Blaustein and writer Ricky Blitt. When Steve (Johnny Knoxville) has to raise a ton of cash for a friend's surgery, his uncle Gary (Brian Cox) proposes that Steve pretend to be "retarded" and compete in the Special Olympics while Gary places bets on him to win. With that setup (and the Farrellys as producers), you expect The Ringer to plunge headfirst into some Bad Santa-style offensive humor where no taboo is left unturned. But the movie strains so hard to have its heart in the right place that it never really exploits the guilty-pleasure fun of the premise. Receiving the endorsement of the Special Olympics, which also served as a consultant, The Ringer means to champion and humanize the film's real-life disabled athletes, but such earnest political correctness neuters any possibility of satire or subversion. As a result, the athletes come off as rather dull, Knoxville feels hemmed in, and Blitt's clichéd script—which includes a steal-the-cute-girl-away-from-her-jerk-fiancé romantic subplot—fails to make us care about anyone, special or otherwise. Instead of a raucous comedy with an ultimately positive message, you get a public-relations campaign with a side of slapstick. (Tim Grierson) (Countywide)

RUMOR HAS IT
Well, now, let's see. Mrs. Robinson (Shirley MacLaine, vamping, camping) is still an old lush, but a helpful one who makes jokes and gives sage counsel. Benjamin, trust us, was no innocent to begin with, and now, if you please, he's Beau Burroughs (same initials, get it?), an Internet millionaire with a Kevin Costner paunch and a testicular deficit that in no way interferes with his yen for sleeping with multiple women from the same family. Elaine is tragically gone in the usual manner (the big C), and that blond Ken doll she almost married turns out to be the most standup guy (Richard Jenkins) in all of Pasadena. And here's a little something extra to hold the under-50 audience: Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston), a New York Times obituary writer in early-midlife crisis who, upon her return to staid Pasadena for her giddy sister's (Mena Suvari) wedding, twigs that it was her family history that inspired The Graduate. Stuffing her sensible boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) onto a plane back to New York, she hares off to San Francisco to search for the man who may be her real father. Sarah gets to go to a ball in a very lovely blue number that shows off the Aniston peepers, but not much else of consequence goes down, let alone a walk-on for Dustin Hoffman. This Rob Reiner comedy jogs along pleasantly enough to the finish (Costner is charming as always in over-the-hill-ruin mode), which entails a less-than-shattering insight about love and marriage, of interest only in that it inadvertently reveals just how fearful and reactionary we've grown about both since Benjamin and Elaine first got on that bus. (Ella Taylor) (Countywide)

THE WHITE COUNTESS
The Redgrave cheekbones march out in full collective force to play a blue-blooded émigré Russian family living in 1930s Shanghai in genteel poverty. Kindly but ineffectual aunt (Vanessa) and snobby mother-in-law from hell (Lynn) try to save face while ambivalently relying on widowed Countess Sofia (Natasha Richardson, blooming) to support them with night work as a taxi dancer and heaven only knows what else. Sofia's star rises when she becomes the hostess of a glamorous new nightclub owned by Jackson (Ralph Fiennes, smiling mysteriously and continuously), a former diplomat whose spirit was crushed along with his eyesight during a period of intense Chinese political turmoil. The theme that juts out of The White Countess like Margaret Rutherford's jaw is that no man is an island, especially if the Japanese are coming and no one is being nice to the Jews, represented in saintly mode by Allan Corduner. I have the greatest respect for Kazuo Ishiguro, whose wonderful novel The Remains of the Day became one of the best films in the Merchant-Ivory oeuvre. But the combination of his stately writing and James Ivory's stately directing, even when pepped by Christopher Doyle's fizzy cinematography, makes for fatally low-key viewing. Which isn't quite the ticket for a melodrama set in one of the world's most cosmopolitan and, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, conflict-ridden cities. Where Shanghai should teem, it merely ambles. (Ella Taylor) (Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana)

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